The Trouble with Positive Thinking

Today I’d like to talk to you about positive thinking. It’s a popular concept, right? You hear about it all the time: “Just think positive!” It’s supposed to make you feel better and get you out of a rut if you’re feeling stuck.

Well – it’s not quite that simple. And sometimes, “just thinking positive” is not actually a good thing. Let me try to explain that with an example.


When you’re feeling concerned about something, that nagging ‘what-if’ experience is a bit like fearing that there might be a grizzly bear standing behind you. “Thinking positive” is like telling yourself to ignore the possibility of A BEAR, and just look at the pretty meadow in front of you.

…First of all, it doesn’t work. It’s a BEAR. Expecting yourself to ignore your fear under these circumstances is ridiculous!!! You can’t get your mind off the bear, no matter how hard you try to make yourself think of the meadow instead. And when you can’t do it, you feel like a failure. So now, you’re feeling scared of the bear, pressured to not feel scared of the bear, and ashamed that you can’t stop feeling scared of the bear. Gee, that’s a much bigger mess than just being scared of the bear, now isn’t it?

…Second – trying to force the bear out of your mind is exhausting. It takes up all of your energy, and makes it hard to focus on anything else.

…And third – it’s basically avoidance. Avoidance feeds the fear, and keeps it growing.

So – what can you do instead?

Well – I’m guessing that most of your concerns are a little more complicated than imaginary bears. You can’t just make the concern go away by checking behind you or under the bed.

Start by acknowledging your feeling of fear. Then, ask yourself – what kind of a fear is it?

If it’s a “what-if” that you’re afraid of, then mindfulness is a tool that might help you to re-focus your energy away from the fear of a potential future event that hasn’t happened yet, and back onto the present.

If your fear is a reaction to something that is really happening, remind yourself that feelings are natural, healthy reactions to events. It’s understandable and human to feel that way. Then, at least you aren’t piling shame and guilt on top of the worrying. That doesn’t fix whatever you’re worried about, but at least it frees up some mental space for problem-solving…

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy content, including photographs, from Coming Back Home without permission.

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Positive Thinking

  1. I am an Art Therapy Student (St. Stephen’s College, Alberta). I have heard this rebuttal for positive psychology before. I first learned about positive psychology through classes at UToronto, and then did some of my own investigation. I see positive psychology as part of the meditation and mindfulness movement. I have deliberated on why positive psychology is helpful and I see it as a way to promote healthy reframing. Currently I work in a mental health drop-in centre. These are clients who have experienced trauma, institutionalization, the medical model, and suffer from severe mental health disorders. When I am working with these clients I have chosen to do art therapeutic activities from the positive psychology framework to promote healthy and new ways of thinking. I am not denying that working on trauma, and how real life issues affect people is important, but I see positive psychology as a way to begin to change neural circuits and pathways to think in a way that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses, and fears. In addition, by working on positive thinking, people relax and can begin to think of their problems in a new way and develop new solutions to problems without as much stress. I have experienced that when people participate in art therapy activities focusing on positive aspects of their life, people become happier, they come to an intuitive understanding and answer to their problem. Positive Psychology is not the only solution. Fear of the bear may still exist and you need to figure out why and how it affects you. For me positive psychology says, You have internal resources to deal with the fear, and we need to tap into those. You are correct, just thinking positive is not enough. To me positive psychology is one tool that assists in changing thought patterns, promotes resilience, strengths, relaxation, and enables intuitive knowing. I welcome discussion.

    1. Hi.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I agree wholeheartedly that introducing expressive arts, as well as positive and adaptive ways of coping, are an integral part of holistic treatment. I encourage relaxation, soothing imagery, grounding, and the development of hobbies, both with my patients as well as here on the blog, in several posts.

      Where I think the confusion arose is that you interpreted my post as – to borrow your words – “a rebuttal to positive psychology”. It was meant as nothing of the sort. Positive psychology involves much more than the over-simplified, short-sighted “just think positive!” attitude that I am addressing here. I am in no way equating the two.

      So – I think we agree, but have had some confusion. In this post, I am not talking about art therapy, or expressive arts, or about positive psychology as a whole. I am very simply referring to the experiential avoidance of the attitude that “just think positive!” is a magic solution to making problems go away.

      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify.

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